Anybody who knows me, knows that I love podcasts. They’re my favored mode of entertainment. As I’ve written about previously, it’s a medium that permits versatile consumption – unlike, say, with a book or a YouTube video, with my fully-charged iPad, I can listen to podcasts in the car, while doing chores, while enjoying a morning cup of coffee (or three), while pursuing my hobby of painting wargaming miniatures, and so on and so forth.
I consume hours of podcasts each day - I listen to them more than I watch TV, which is less than 2 hours a day – on a variety of topics and covering a wide swath of interests, from true crime to history to comedy to geek topics. However, I’m also tremendously picky (the less said about the said “Serial”-ization of the podcast medium the better). I’m what you might call a periodic monogamist when it comes to the medium. I tend to have a standard rotation of 10-15 podcasts that I’ll listen to, with some of them staying in rotation for years, having earned a loyal follower in me. Others will be in the rotation for months to a year, before I tire of them for one reason or another. Others I’ll audition for a while and discard. Some I try out and just drop after an episode or two. And some podcasts I just don’t seen to be able to break up with, and I keep going back to them time and again, only to realize afresh why I dropped them in the first place.
By my own reckoning I’ve listened to 150-200 different podcasts over the last 10 years or so. That’s a lot, by any standard.
And something I’ve noticed in that time, something incontrovertible, is the truism that if a podcast has been around for any length of time, it will feature advertising. And sometimes there’s a LOT of it.
The advertising crops up for a variety of reasons; some of the podcasts have ads because they need to offset the costs of their web hosting. Some podcasts are literally the primary or secondary job of the podcasters themselves, and so they need the advertising to actually provide their livelihood. And some podcasts are part of large networks or services that have corporate sponsorships, so the advertising is a native part of the shows themselves – for instance, the podcasts that are made out of NPR radio programming exhibit this feature.
Listening to these ads (over, and over… and over again), you see that patterns start to emerge. First and foremost, there are a bevy of companies that seem to almost exclusively advertise on podcasts that you otherwise have never heard of. These companies seem to be driven by the money brought to them by podcast listenership. Male hygiene products (shaving companies like Harry’s Razors, and erectile dysfunction drug and hair restoration companies), Casper mattresses, and a variety of delivery apps all have advertising presences on podcasts, and not many other high-profile places (though some have started to branch out more into TV).
It became almost a stereotype, for instance, that meal kit delivery services dominated podcast advertising over the past two years or so. Services like Blue Apron, Hello Fresh and others had a sort of advertising war going on, as first one, then the other appeared to vie for podcast airwave saturation. It’s been joked about as a trope in podcasts, and as a signifier of Millenial-Hipster identity. It was nearly impossible to listen to a podcast and not be accosted by one of them. Now, over the last year or so, they’ve switched more to TV advertising and left podcasts to others.
What ads appear on podcasts betray the audience that they think they’re bringing in. One comedy podcast I listen to, which is bulwarked by three 40-to-50-something Gen Xers, has begun to feature ads for a company that assists with (get this) life insurance; so the assumption is that, if you’re listening, you’re over the hill. A true crime podcast I enjoy features ads for a service called “Hunt a Killer,” a subscription box where you are put in the role of someone solving a serial murder, and says it’s a fun party activity – the assumption being that the average listener has 1) disposable income 2) leisure time and, 3) a stable network of friendships.
How these podcasts deal with delivering these ads is interesting. Just like on the radio, the podcast hosts actually read the ads themselves, generally adhering to a script provided by the advertiser, though the podcasters usually put their own English on it. Some (most) read it straight, and enthusiastically so. Some take you behind the curtain as they’re reading and reveal how the ads are structured. And some show outright contempt at even having to read the ads.
The ads aren’t simply reserved for big companied - there are definitely independent companies that advertise too, hocking their Kickstarter projects, their own podcasts, locally-produced soaps, hot sauces, and other products. One podcast network even makes it plain: On their podcasts, for a fee of $200, you too can have the hosts read your ad during a part of the show set aside for such utterances.
While I know some people hate hearing their podcasts interrupted by advertising, I don’t particularly mind it; if I can put up with TV ads, then, well, whatever. And I don’t begrudge the podcasters the fact that they’ve actually been able to attract advertising to their shows.
My worry is about the future of the medium. Podcasting is something that, quite literally, sprung out of nothing about a decade ago and is now becoming highly corporatized. More and more podcasts are the product of big companies hoping to get even bigger by scoring a palpable hit in what was previously a DIY medium; the New York Times alone has at 14+ different podcasts available on iTunes, for instance. Other podcasts join together in so-called “networks” – one well-known network has a yearly funding drive to raise money, with target fundraising goals meted out to each of their member podcasts. And while there are still a lot of independent podcasts that are just produced by a couple of folks with a microphone and a dream, promoting themselves only by word of mouth and the free publicity that social media can bring, more and more, individual podcasts are highly produced operations generated by companies, not individuals, and adhering to a standard set of cookie-cutter tropes and themes.
So, whenever I hear that a podcast I love has started getting some significant advertising money, I start to wonder: where is this going? And will it change?